Sunday, May 24, 2009

Children in Shul

[The latest edition of Haveil [Charles] Havalim is here!]

Thank Gd, we are blessed with four wonderful children with very different personalities, and we now manage to have all of them with us in shul Shabbos morning for davening, from the almost-10 year old down to the 3 year old. All of them come with my wife and me before davening , and all of them remain through the end.

Every once in a while, people ask me for “the secret” to their good behavior. If we have succeeded at all [and on many mornings I tend to doubt it...], the secret is mostly in my much-admired rebbetzin’s genes as well as influence.

Still, we have learned some lessons over the past six years of bringing kids to shul, lessons which also apply to other areas of raising kids. Here are several; please add your own.

Set realistic expectations
In terms of bringing kids to multiple davenings on the same Shabbos, in terms of bringing kids to shul early in the morning or late at night, and in terms of the level of davening participation we demand, it’s important that we figure out their shul-tolerance in advance.

Make sure the children know your expectations
This is huge; kids must know, in advance, what exactly they are expected to do.
This includes providing clear and timely notice before sections of davening in which you cannot speak to them; parents can’t stand up in the amidah or go for an aliyah without forewarning their children and setting them up with proper activities.
Instructions must also be repeated at appropriate intervals for younger children.

Avoid the wrong distractions, provide the right distractions
As far as avoiding the wrong distractions, this is the one benefit of my sitting far from others; there is no pressure for them to converse with peers or adults.
But we must also provide the right distractions, ways for the kids to spend their time in shul productively, when they are not davening. For some it’s picking out letters in the siddur with them; for others it’s storybooks or sefarim. But just like adults need positive distractions, so do kids.
This also goes for the shul's youth programs during davening. Know what the programs are, and know whether they are good for your kids, and in what doses.

Set the tone when you’re not in shul
Children often see davening as a “shul thing” rather than something they do, personally, and they don’t understand why it should have meaning for them. Davening should be a part of their daily lives in some way, both in learning about it and in practicing it, so that they understand the conversation with HaShem as a function of their normal, day-to-day existence.

Be a good role model
A no-brainer. If you talk, or if you space out, then the kids will do it, too.
(Although, once they reach their teens they may use this as a catalyst for rebellion, and start to daven more seriously just to spite you...)

Put yourself at their disposal
This may mean delaying your amidah until a problem is resolved, or staggering child-care with a neighbor. It certainly involves interrupting your davening, when at all possible, to converse appropriately with the children, explain the davening to them, and keep them involved.

Have a fall-back plan
Leaving shul, handing a child off to another parent, whatever, but there must always be a plan.

Understand what they are doing, and why
It’s important for parents to understand why their children daven, or do not daven. Do they understand what davening is about? Can they read well? If they are not davening, is it rebellion against you, boredom, distraction by their personal lives, spacing out… ?

Relax
Training kids to daven is chinuch, a critical parental responsibility, but getting agitated and losing your temper won’t help. If your child isn’t ready, getting upset at him won’t make him ready. Take each child at her own level, with his own style.

Oh, and be ready to throw any and all of these rules out the window for your particular child. It’s the age-old lesson of child-rearing: No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.

13 comments:

  1. I bring my 3 year old to shul Friday Night. Not many other kids are there so he sits quietly and eats his snack. For day, only when my wife or mother is upstairs.

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  2. Mother in Israel, Shorty-
    Thanks!

    Moshe-
    Exactly what I'm talking about. How does he do on late Friday nights?

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  3. Last Friday, great. Plus, 15 minutes there and back.

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  4. Great post, thanks!

    In Ramat Eshkol, my then 4 year old would come to shul with me. Back up plan was simple. If she was disruptive, WE went to play outside. Not as punishment I always told her, just in recognition that right now she doesn't want to behave in the manner required in shul. I understood that if I bring my child to shul, she is my responsibility even if I miss out on davenning with the minyan.

    It worked pretty well; and yes, there were plenty of occasions when we had to go out to the play area or the park.

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  5. Moshe-
    Good to hear. I won't bring any of mine, not even the oldest, at this time of year. Gd-willing next year I'll start the oldest on it.

    R' Mordechai-
    Did you find that she took advantage, or did she understand that this was not a good thing?

    SephardiLady-
    Thanks! I am honored.

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  6. "Did you find that she took advantage, or did she understand that this was not a good thing?"

    Both, as one might expect of a child her age. The learning process was important though. Sometimes I would get up and say we have to go out now, and she would cry and resist, and I would have to emphasize this wasn't punishment, rather a move to a place appropriate for the behaviour. But I would also have to insist that we leave for now. She did get a clear picture of required behaviour in the beit knesset. That came through years later.

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  7. Excellent rules & congratulations (especially to the rebbetzin) on being able to handle FOUR kids in shul -- especially from beginning to end! When our third was born, we had to stop going completely for a while because it got to be too hard to do until they got older.

    For a while, I took our eldest by myself and was careful about which shuls we attended, making sure that the congregation was both welcoming to us and serious about davening. The tone set by the congregation will affect children's behavior (and long-term feelings about shul) as well.

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  8. R' Mordechai-
    Glad to hear it.

    Fruma-
    Thanks, and the receptivity of the shul is, indeed, crucial.

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  9. I'm very grateful that Blondini Boy is perfectly content sitting quietly next to me, while occasionally running outside to play with his friends. If, upon re-entry, he forgets to keep his voice down, he is gently reminded or re-exited until he can quiet down. Works for us.

    In our neighborhood, there is a rotation of families hosting תפילת ילדים (Children's prayer) in our houses, for 3-5 year olds, timed to coincide with Torah reading. It's a great solution for a small community.

    In general, Israeli shuls are much more kid-friendly, which has its pluses and minuses, of course.

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  10. That 3-5 approach does sound good. As they get older, though, I'd want those who are capable of understanding to be in shul itself.

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